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Crazy for God
by Frank Schaeffer
Carroll and Graf, 2007
(304 pages, $25.99, hardcover)
reviewed by Jason R. Edwards
A train wreck. The analogy may be used too frequently but rarely more appropriately than in reference to Frank Schaeffer’s new book, Crazy for God. While terrible to view, it is hard to pull one’s eyes away from Schaeffer’s prurient tell-all memoir, written for the voyeur in all of us.
Schaeffer is the only son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, the Evangelical powerhouses of the second half of the twentieth century who founded L’Abri in Switzerland and (according to Frank) the “religious right” in the United States. Francis’s writings and videos (and to a lesser but still significant degree, Edith’s) continue to influence Evangelicals across the globe. Frank means to put a stop to that.
An American Cliché
Schaeffer is upset, but even after reading his memoirs, it is difficult to understand why. He doesn’t consider himself a typical American, but overdramatizing one’s childhood, claiming parental “oppression” while still seeing one’s parents as neglectful, and not appreciating the opportunities, ease, and blessings one has been showered with are all, unfortunately, American clichés.
Growing up with famous parents can be tough, but still, Frank grew up without fear or want in arguably the most beautiful place in the world, attended a fine British boarding school, and had the opportunity to become a best-selling author and make Hollywood features despite having no experience or degrees, simply because of who his parents were.
Add to this the fact that he has a faithful wife he apparently adores, a handsome, growing family, and a second successful career writing and painting, and you start to wonder what this guy’s problem is. If only we could all have it so hard.
Marketers have wisely sold the book on his revelations regarding the Schaeffer family, but also on what he says against famous Evangelical leaders such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson. Since he and his father worked with each of them, he should have personal insight that would interest supporters and enemies alike.
What he claims can be repeated easily and almost without having to summarize. First, he doesn’t like any of them. Second, he asserts that his father didn’t like them either and called them cobelligerents rather than allies or friends. Third, he claims that they “would later use their power in ways that would have made my father throw up.”
One sentence encapsulates his most damning accusations:
In private, they ranged from unreconstructed bigot reactionaries like Jerry Falwell, to Dr. Dobson, the most power-hungry and ambitious person I have ever met, to Billy Graham, a very weird man indeed who lived an oddly sheltered life in a celebrity/ministry cocoon, to Pat Robertson, who would have a hard time finding work in any job where hearing voices is not a requirement.
Insults proliferate, but if you want more elaboration or proof of the validity of his assessments, you really won’t find it in Crazy.
What can consistently be found in Crazy is unintended irony. Part of Schaeffer’s attack on his previous association with Evangelicalism includes a celebration of his refusal to return to the fold even when financial hardship led him to shoplift food.
Incongruity drips from the page, though, as he nonetheless only finds financial success by mining those Evangelical veins. Though not returning to Evangelicalism as a friend, he did regain financial security when he wrote quasi-factual, autobiographical novels—the Calvin Becker Trilogy: Portofino (1992), Saving Grandma (1997), and Zermatt (2003)—lambasting his parents.
Admittedly, Schaeffer is not trying to write an Augustine’s Confessions or even a Grant’s Memoirs; nevertheless, his prose is overly colloquial and marred by careless errors (for instance, Os Guinness, who worked at L’Abri, has his name perpetually misspelled as “Oz”). Having a true purpose or theme for the book—other than elucidating directly the accusations already made through his novels—must have been considered superfluous.
Schaeffer is an angry man who writes like an angry boy; he likes to attack, shock, titillate, and offend, particularly his former Evangelical friends. For instance, he punctuates his prose with random profanity—particularly the “f-word”—and he reports on seemingly every rumored escapade he has gotten wind of and grossly overestimates the public’s interest in his own masturbatory habits and history.
Crazy provides a pile-up of undocumented, quasi-chronological tales that might serve a beginning psychoanalysis class, but little more. Freud would have had a field day with this book; you probably won’t.
Ultimately, Crazy is an exercise in petulance. Having had a front-row seat to a powerful couple and an even more powerful movement, Schaeffer should have valuable stories to tell, academic contributions to make, and even healthy correctives to administer.
Stuck seething, he remains unfit for the task; Francis and Edith Schaeffer will have to await more skilled and even-tempered biographers. Likewise, American Evangelicals, who undoubtedly could benefit from self-reflection on the weaknesses and failures of their movement and its leaders, must wait for a true Jeremiah.